by Jessica Livingston
Laurent Cantet has emerged as a major film director in the last decade, writing and directing Ressources humaines/Human Resources (1999), Emploi du Temps/Time Out (2001), Vers le Sud/Heading South (2005), and Entre Les Murs/The Class (2008). His films have received both critical and popular attention in France and globally, winning numerous awards on the international and art-house festival circuits and attracting attention for the political relevance of his subject matter. Cantet describes his films as dealing with “how the nature of intimacy and private life is shaped by social issues and the way social issues are connected to private life,” which is revealed through their consistent engagement with the subjects of work, class, and leisure. [open endnotes in new window]
Film scholars Martin O’Shaughnessy in The New Face of Political Cinema and Will Higbee in “The Social-Realist Melodramas of Laurent Cantet” have included Cantet within a new generation of politically committed filmmakers in France. Following the massive public sector strikes in 1995, films addressing the changing socioeconomic conditions of the country began emerging in the late 1990s and 2000s. The term “New Realism” is loosely used to characterize these films that explore themes such as unemployment, immigration, and cultural exclusion and give voice to marginalized minorities. Unlike the films of other New Realist filmmakers, Cantet’s films portray people both at the margins and at the center of the economic system. Interestingly, each of Cantet’s four films portrays a different sector of the global economy: a working-class factory in Human Resources; a laid-off, middle-class consultant in Time Out; the tourist industry in the Third World in Heading South; and Parisian multi-ethnic immigrant students in France in The Class. A trajectory throughout all these films is their understanding of global capital—more specifically, of neoliberalism, the political and economic philosophy of free markets and free trade that dominated conventional wisdom in the late twentieth century.
Stylistically, Cantet’s films share traits with other “New Realist” films. To varying degrees in his different films, Cantet uses a naturalized mis-en-scene, shoots on location and improvises dialogue throughout the filming process. He provides basic guidelines or a rough script to the actors, they improvise, and then he re-writes the script including their improvisations. All of his films include both professional and non-professional actors. He states that some roles
“can be greatly enriched by the experience of the ‘real people’ who embody them…Non-professional actors walk on to the set carrying their own past, with a block of reality around them which the film must integrate. I’m interested in capturing things rather than in fabricating them.”
New Realist films, however, do more than just “capture” reality. O’ Shaugnessy addresses the new use of melodrama in the contemporary context. While melodrama has typically not been used for radical purposes because of its focus on the individual and its emphasis on emotional involvement, O’Shaugnessy argues that its use is productive in the contemporary context because it “allows both for an acerbic critique of the individual and for a dramatization of the monstrosity of the current order.” Both O’Shaugnessy and Higbee highlight the elements of melodrama in Cantet’s films.
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